Located about 10 miles from Munich, Dachau was the first of many concentration camps on the European continent to be built over the next decade or so (see, for example, Niklaus Waschmann, KL, 2015; or information on the Yad Vashem website).
The National Socialists came to power on 30 January 1933. Dachau began internment of prisoners in March 1933.
The Dachau Konzentrationslager (KZ/KL) was to become the model on which the concentration camp system would be based across the Third Reich territories.
On 1 July 1934, Theodor Eicke was appointed as Inspector of Concentration Camps: his guards were trained “to destroy any feelings of humanity they might have had towards their prisoners” (Burleigh and Wippermann p. 62). He was later to run the Death’s Head Formation – a concentration camp guard unit that operated from 1936.
Eicke’s system was based on graded punishments up to the level of firing squad. He initiated the use of prisoners as forced labour (Burleigh and Wippermann, p. 62). Here and at other camps, quarries and brickworks were established in close proximity to this free source of labour in order maximise the labour potential. Many German construction (and later, armaments) companies were to benefit from this slave labour source.
The first prisoners held at Dachau were ‘political’ – Communists and Social Democrats. Within a year they included homeless people taken from the streets, and others termed ‘asocials’. As the reach and power of the SS grew, these prisoners included Siniti and Roma people, whose persecution was now under the aegis of the Criminal Police. Jews were also imprisoned here from the start – often because they were also deemed to be ‘communists’ or ‘politicals’ in some form.
As time went by, Jews and Poles were to be ‘resettled’ (forcibly moved) away from occupied territories adjacent to Germany. They were to be replaced by ‘German’ (‘Aryan’) people. In part, the KZ system helped the National Socialists to enforce this policy of creating lebensraum (‘living space’ for Aryans).
By the time war was declared in autumn 1939, Heinrich Himmler was in charge of this “vast operation” running the concentration camp system. He was appointed Commissar of the Strengthening of Ethnic Germandom on 7 October 1939 (Burleigh and Wippermann, p. 66).
By 1944, many ‘groups’ of people were interned at Dachau (and in other concentration and death camps), including men and women, the very young, the very elderly, people with mental or physical health problems, people who were homosexual, as well as those from cultures or religions deemed to be ‘inferior’, or in some way seen as posing a threat to the National Socialist state.
During November 1938 Jews were imprisoned in Dachau in large numbers: around 10,000 to 11,000 were incarcerated at this time. Werner Weissenberg was one of these men, deported to Dachau from Frankfurt am Main.
The camp was not large enough to hold all these people arriving over the course of a few days. Conditions were terrible and many had to sleep outside on arrival in freezing November conditions. There were not enough latrines, insufficient food, few beds, and little by way of washing facilities.
See below for further details about conditions in Dachau during 1938–1939.
Dachau entry book, 1938, showing Werner Weissenberg’s name and details; Häftlinge number 24231
Letter from Werner to Frau Sack, reflecting on his experiences in Dachau
9th June 1939
"If [Kurt] has to return to Germany the consequences are unimaginable; he doesn’t really know how terrible they will be. Apart from the fact that he would be unable to feed himself or his family there, because there are no employment opportunities for Jews, he would surely end up in a concentration camp, as has happened to the Jews who have arrived there from other countries. I can tell you from my own experiences what that would entail in all its gory detail, but I don’t think I need to tell you that. Those who get away with their lives can talk about being lucky. We have suffered much of its consequences on our health and our life."
Although Jews were not directly the first targets for imprisonment in Dachau, there is general agreement among many historians that as a group they were treated the worst.
Once the ‘Final Solution’ got underway in 1942, Jews were sent from Dachau to extermination camps across Poland, but many thousands had died here from starvation and maltreatment long before that more systematic state murder got underway.
Many witness accounts of conditions at Dachau were recorded in the months following the events of November 1938. These sources have been translated into English and published by the Wiener library. Pogrom–November 1938: Testimonies from Kristallnacht is available in book and digital formats. This project is the result of an extraordinary labour of dedication, and is searchable by keyword on the library website: “In the months following November 1938, Alfred Wiener and his colleagues at the JCIO in Amsterdam collected over 350 contemporary testimonies and reports of the November Pogrom in Germany and Austria.”
The following original information and documents can be viewed by visiting the Wiener Library November Pogrom website (link in the paragraph above).
"During admission to the camp everyone was treated in the most humiliating way. We had to line up in rows. Everybody received terrible flogging and slaps round the face from various SS men. Countless people came away from that with blackened and swollen eyes. ... [W]e were led to the large square and had to stand there from 10 in the morning to half past 12 o’clock at night. It was cold (those who arrived after us did not receive caps and so their shorn heads froze). The standing was dreadful. During this time SS men always went around the sections and beat one or the other person dreadfully. The manner of treatment was bestial. ... We had to suffer from the cold above all, and especially those who were already suffering when they were admitted; most of them have already died meanwhile and more will die. ... After various terrible cases became known, nobody in the camp has the confidence to report to the Revier [sick bay], i.e., the doctor." Arthur Berg, Testimony: Transcript, 22 November 1938. Doc * [B65],translated from the German by the Wiener Library, http://wienerlibrarycollections.co.uk/novemberpogrom/testimonies-and-reports/b51-b100/b.67, 2016.
"The worst sadist appears to be the deputy of the Lagerkommandant [camp commandant]. He approached a troop of newly arrived Jews from behind. He gave one of them, who seemingly had not stood completely still, a horrible punch. The man fell down, was perhaps unconscious and could not get up. Thereupon the Kommandant's deputy trampled around on the man, and when he still did not get up, had him laid on the Bock [whipping block] and whipped with the bullwhip. After that the man was certainly unconscious. (The worst punishment in and of itself is the frequent threat of whipping the naked body. And everyone has utter dread of that.)" Unknown, Testimony: Transcript, 21 November 1938. Doc * [B69],translated from the German by the Wiener Library, http://wienerlibrarycollections.co.uk/novemberpogrom/testimonies-and-reports/b51-b100/b.69, 2016.
"Releases occurred according to the following considerations: * People aged over 60, though not all of them, only some. * People who had finalised their emigration and who would be allowed to leave Germany within a short deadline. * People who had been recorded as essential for performing business sales * (This was, however, only in the final days before my own release) People of special merit and the wounded of the World War. Upon release, emigrants were made aware of the fact that they and their families would be in a concentration camp for life if they were ever seen on German soil again. The emigration of Bavarian prisoners was ‘eased’ by the fact that the appropriate notary came to Dachau with a Party lawyer, and all of those who possessed property, businesses and suchlike had to give full authority to the lawyer to sell these at the best possible rate, so that any effort needed for the elimination of their property was removed from them." Unknown, Report to Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities: Transcript, 19 December 1938. Doc * [B184],translated from the German by the Wiener Library, http://wienerlibrarycollections.co.uk/novemberpogrom/testimonies-and-reports/b151-b200/b.184?searchterms=dachau+releases+occurred, 2016.
"I remember one incident in which a Jew with a fever of 40 degrees had to appear at an Appell in these circumstances with pieces of wood that he had tied under his feet. There were 13,000 Jews and 4,500 Aryans in the camp. The oldest were 84 and 87 years old. 40 people died on one day." Unknown, nd: Transcript. Doc * [B227],translated from the German by the Wiener Library, http://wienerlibrarycollections.co.uk/novemberpogrom/testimonies-and-reports/b201-b250/b.227?searchterms=Dachau+tied+feet, 2016.
"The situation with the latrines was particularly bad, they were simply dug out pits over which wide bars had been laid. More than once people drowned in the latrine. I also saw an SS man push a Jew in." Dr Willy Schiller, Syndics [Counsel], Hindenburg, Upper Silesia: Transcript, nd. Doc * [B193],translated from the German by the Wiener Library, http://wienerlibrarycollections.co.uk/novemberpogrom/testimonies-and-reports/b151-b200/b.193?searchterms=Dachau+latrines+pits, 2016.
"Dawn was breaking ... One had to report for Appell [roll call] again. At 9 o’clock there was some coffee and a small piece of mouldy bread; and then something else happened, which bears witness to the subhuman nature of the SS. From 9 o’clock in the morning until 7 o’clock in the evening they had us sit on the wet, soggy ground, legs crossed. Being excused to relieve ourselves was forbidden. One simply had to do it in one‘s trousers. No lavatories were in place and so-called latrines were only set up after a few days. There was no water for washing either. During imprisonment one was therefore forced not to wash and one had no other clothes either, so that one never got out of one’s clothes for the whole period of one’s imprisonment. The result of these appalling conditions can be vividly imagined. At 8 o’clock one was again chased into one‘s barrack, and the same sad scenes as during the night of Sunday to Monday were repeated. ... Some people were dragged by the SS into the so-called washhouse, which in reality resembled a torture chamber where people were simply tortured and bullied to death." Unknown: Transcript, nd. Doc * [B213],translated from the German by the Wiener Library, http://wienerlibrarycollections.co.uk/novemberpogrom/testimonies-and-reports/b201-b250/b.213?searchterms=dachau+mouldy+coffee, 2016.
After the war, Dachau was used as the site for trials of German war criminals, and there is considerable documentation of this period in the Arolsen Archives database. See, for example, the files on ‘War Crimes Investigations of the conditions at the detachment Mühldorf and on transports in spring 1945’, Reference Code 8067100, Creation Date 1933-10-01–1947-02-26, Number of documents 94.
For further information on the origins and history of Dachau, see, for example, information held on the Yad Vashem website, https://www.yadvashem.org/odot_pdf/Microsoft%20Word%20-%206242.pdf
(Extracted in PDF form here, in case the above link becomes invalid: Dachau_YadVashem).